Before Netflix’s Stranger Things introduced unfamiliar audiences to the fantasy role-playing game Dungeons & Dragons in 2016 with creatures like the Demogorgon and mind flayers, playwright Qui Nguyen used the game to tell a touching story of discovery and adventure in his play “She Kills Monsters,” which debuted in 2011.
Theatrikos Theater Company now brings the story to the local stage through its TheatriKids program. In it, Agnes Evans (Cori Jarmer) is described as a perfectly average cheerleader, with average interests such as “boys, music and popular television programs.” On the other hand, her sister, Tilly (Mandy Meilbeck), is almost her polar opposite. She spends most of her time fascinated with the dark arts, engrossed in Dungeons & Dragons campaigns and playing with swords.
The prologue sets the scene as a narrator (Andrea Lopez) describes Agnes’ frustration with her younger sister’s unpopularity. After wishing out loud that she didn’t have such a geeky sister, Tilly is killed in a car accident. The play isn’t a tragedy though. Instead, it’s one of drama and comedy laden with homicidal fairies, nasty ogres and ‘90s pop culture as Agnes begins playing D&D to become closer to her sister.
Although the original play contains adult language, Theatrikos was able to purchase the rights for a “Young Adventurers’ Edition” of Nguyen’s unique story which, while keeping the general plot and emotions of the original, is set in high school rather than college to tone down some of the more mature themes.
“This is a little more edgy than we normally do in a TheatriKids production, but I’m glad that we’re getting the opportunity to bring this on the stage,” says director Joe Maniglia.
Scene one begins on the anniversary of her sister’s death. Agnes finds one of Tilly’s D&D campaign notebooks where she kept track of where her party was in the game and asks Dungeon Master Chuck (Dermot Louchart) for help understanding the notes. She’s skeptical at first but then slowly becomes more involved in the fantasy world in which Tilly immersed herself to escape from bullies.
Like all TheatriKids productions, the cast is made up of young actors from middle and high schools across Flagstaff. The opportunity to act in front of different audiences than those who would attend school plays gives the students more first-hand experience in the limelight.
“I enjoy getting to know my fellow actors and the sense of accomplishment when performing,” says Meilbeck, 14, of her involvement in TheatriKids.
Jarmer, 18, adds, “I think the director and our cast raise the bar beyond what you would expect of a children's community theatre. There is also a great sense of community and camaraderie that is sometimes hard to find.”
Maniglia, who has directed TheatriKids productions for the past eight years, says he enjoys how fearless the young actors tend to be in their roles.
“They’re willing to take chances, and they have an interesting way of looking at the world,” he says. “I think of the way people are responding to the youth activism surrounding [the school shooting in] Parkland. In many respects that doesn’t surprise me because youth do have that optimism, and they do have that drive and energy, and it does keep me on my toes.”
While Meilbeck has been regularly involved in theater for the past six years, Jarmer first began acting around 12 years ago during a summer camp.
“It was a terrifying, awesome experience that created a lifelong passion, a passion for sharing my love of the arts to an audience and to perform with the adrenaline of the spotlight,” she says. For this play, she was able to delve deeper into fight choreography. “It has been challenging and fun—probably one of the coolest things I have ever done in theater.”
Theatrikos borrowed monster puppets used by Arizona State University’s theater department when it did a production of the play and “they’re really the icing on the cake,” Maniglia says.
The puppets will help audience members feel like they’re inside the game as Agnes encounters various foes throughout the campaign. However, there’s no need to have an understanding of the game to follow the main storyline.
“It really has a wonderful story in the midst of the geek culture about friendship [and] about what it means to be on the inside, what it means to be on the outside,” Maniglia says.
“One of the best things about playing Agnes is the way she is thrust into a world she knows nothing about,” says Jarmer. “This insecurity, bravery and undying love for her sister has been a humbling role to play and I am very excited for this production.”
“She Kills Monsters” will be performed at the Doris Harper-White Community Playhouse, 11 W. Cherry Ave., Friday and Saturday, March 9 and 10, at 7 p.m. and Sunday, March 11, at 2 p.m. Tickets are $12 plus fees and can be purchased online at www.theatrikos.com, by calling 774-1662 or by visiting the box office two hours prior to each show.